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Heir Apparent of Abbas May Have the Diplomacy He Lacked

Ahmed Korei is seen as smooth enough to distance himself from Arafat without offense.

September 09, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The tightrope act is the same. But those who know Ahmed Korei, the man expected to become the next Palestinian Authority prime minister, hope his balancing skills will prove more formidable than those of the man who just quit the job.

Korei was formally nominated by President Yasser Arafat on Monday to take up the post vacated Saturday by Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned after clashing repeatedly with his boss and complaining of receiving little international support. If Korei accepts, he will inherit a difficult portfolio requiring him to satisfy Arafat, the Palestinian people, the Israeli government and the White House while trying to advance the international peace plan known as the Mideast "road map."

Success -- or failure -- is likely to depend a great deal on Korei's relationship with the prickly, autocratic Arafat, who remains the ultimate ringmaster in the Palestinian political circus. Those who know Korei say he is a deft political hand who maintains close ties with Arafat but could cut an independent figure without alienating the man at the top.

On Monday, Korei -- currently speaker of the Palestinian parliament -- said he was studying Arafat's offer. Aides said he had provisionally agreed to take the job, but on the condition that the U.S. and other international bodies hold Israel accountable for fulfilling its obligations under the road map. Korei also insisted that Israel and the U.S. end their isolation of Arafat, whom the two nations have tried to marginalize for more than a year.

Korei is expected to announce his decision within days -- part of an attempt by Arafat to fill the prime minister's post swiftly to deflect criticism and possible Israeli action against him on the grounds that he caused Abbas to step down.

On paper, Korei looks similar to the man he may be on the verge of replacing. Both Korei and Abbas are veterans of Fatah, Arafat's faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization, and are viewed as moderate pragmatists. Both were senior negotiators in the landmark Oslo accord of the 1990s that resulted in the formation of the Palestinian Authority.

But associates are quick to draw distinctions. Whereas Abbas was politically clumsy, colleagues say, Korei is adroit. And where Abbas, despite his long history with Arafat, was prone to antagonizing him, Korei knows better how to work with -- and around -- the Palestinian president.

"He's a political creature. He is quite knowledgeable about Palestinian domestic realities, so he's capable of maneuvering in a minefield," said Hanan Ashrawi, an independent Palestinian legislator.

Korei is eager to ensure that he would not repeat the same mistakes and encounter the same obstacles that brought down Abbas. Like many Palestinians, Korei blames Israeli intransigence in large part for Abbas' failure.

He called on the U.S. and other parties to the road map to guarantee that Israel meet its obligations to ease conditions in the Palestinian territories, such as lifting the military checkpoints that have strangled movement of people and goods. Abbas was deeply unpopular with many Palestinians, who felt that his policies brought no improvement to their daily lives.

"Are they ready to cooperate, to stop the aggression, the incursion, the destruction and the assassinations?" Korei asked about Israel. "Are they ready to change the way they deal with Arafat? I will not do anything without solving these issues. Otherwise, we will not need a government or a prime minister."

But Korei gave no indication how he would fulfill the Palestinians' end of the bargain: dismantling terrorist networks such as Hamas. The Israeli government says that it will not proceed unless the Palestinian leadership tackles the militias.

Israel also refuses to make any concessions to Arafat, instead calling him a hindrance to peace and hinting in recent days that it might put him under house arrest in his battered West Bank compound or even send him into exile.

Although Korei is known to have good working relations with Israel and the U.S. as a participant in past peace efforts, neither nation has made clear whether it would be willing to deal with him if he takes the prime minister's post.

Both governments insist that whoever accepts the job must prove his commitment to act against extremist groups.

"Our focus is on the institution of the prime minister and the power that it has," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday. "It will be critical that the new Cabinet continues to press for reforms and continues to fight terrorism."

McClellan declined to respond to Korei's demands that Israel ease its military crackdown. Instead, he said any new prime minister must assume control of Palestinian security forces in order to dismantle terror groups.

"The office of the prime minister ... needs to be empowered," McClellan said. "It needs to have the authority to crack down on terrorism. That means it needs to have all of the security forces under the control of the prime minister."

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